Why Story Structure Anatomy Matters
On the spectrum of pantser v. plotter, I’m a hybrid…but I’m convinced of the necessity of structure to tell a good story. Lately I’ve been playing with various types of story structure. This is interesting and useful stuff. Lots of people have written lovely books about this topic, if you want to bone up on specifics and argue about stuff, I’ll refrain from grumbling and just tell you what I’ve learned about my own process.
The more I experiment with various methods for organizing and presenting plot, the more I realize how structure has the ability to alter a story, for both better and worse – sorta like spousal expectations in a marriage.
I enjoy formatting and I adore bones. Those don’t go together, you say…ah, but you’re wrong. Both are foundations, skeletal elements if you like, that support and provide scaffolding for other important stuff like soft tissues, organs, musculature…or in terms of writing, the words on the page.
Without skeletons we’re just big old blobby messes of tissue, wiggling around like primordial ooze on the blue-green algae-smeared banks of evolution. With internal structures we rise gracefully to our fine-arched feet in order to dance, climb, leap and cavort across the landscape. These structures are the steel girders and the welded joints of the support system which make our movements smooth and sleek. Structure gives lift to our words, form to our ideas, and agility to our plots.
Knowing the anatomical structure of your story only benefits your ability to layer and interpolate meaning.
I spend a lot of time being distracted with how dialogue lays out on a page. It reads differently (like poetry), depending on where the breaks, pauses and cessations occur. Sometimes poetry just pisses me off because I think the writer put the breaks in the wrong place. I know it’s done that way on purpose, but it frustrates me. A writer friend recently informed me that in poetry this is called enjambment. Interesting.
Tweaking dialogue to create additional layers of meaning, intuit foreshadowing, and draw out deeper emotion is intriguing. This is the strength of story structure. When you find the right one for your particular work, it offers improvements, extends threads and hijacks complexity into lovely snarly new tangles.
Hot damn. That’s sexy.
Most of you writerly types already know this stuff, but I’m still figuring out the basics. Reading about structure in writing craft books doesn’t always work for me. I’m a hands-on kind of girl (yes, that was Beavis snickering in the background), and these ideas never really make sense until I’ve had a chance to apply one or two to my own work. Doing that has garnered some pretty nifty results.
More than one professional author advised me about the critical importance of structure – not just having one – but knowing which schematic is the best choice for a specific work and how to best implement the process for greatest effect. Each author claimed this is what made the difference in taking their work to a new level. I’m convinced. Already I’ve grasped the practicality of using structure to better visualize my stories, improve the complexity of threads, identify material that needs to be jettisoned, and how the correct structure can draw the reader deeper into a story.
I didn’t really begin to understand, until I applied it to my own writing.
I’ve no idea how many different story structures exist, but do some web surfing and you’ll find information about:
Narrative approaches to structure.
(meander, pace, sprint!)
The use of acts in structure.
(occurring in 3-7 distinct parts)
The 8-point story arc.
(excellent for the folklorists in the house)
Inverted pyramids, wave forms, and compression storylines.
(great alternate approaches)
Angularity techniques in plotting.
(I might have made this one up…I like geometry)
Various permutations of mythic exploration and journeying.
(I heart Joseph Campbell)
If that isn’t enough to confuse the general browser, a week or so ago, Chuck Wendig had a don’t-miss-it post called 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure, in which he explored the usefulness of structure. Check out this post and you’ll come away with new insight and a few curses you might not have previously known. Don’t forget to peruse the comments section below the post for further input.
Share the epiphanies…